Book Review: Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryennios


by Leonora Neville

Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. xv, 242. Tables, appends, notes, biblio., index. $99.00. ISBN: 1107009456

In his 1869 opus A History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, British historian William Lecky wrote,

“Of that Byzantine empire, the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed. There has been no other enduring civilization so absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness, and none to which the epithet "mean" may be so emphatically applied . . . . The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs, and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude.”

Well, not exactly. Every era takes History as a mirror. What we see in the past is often a reflection of the concerns, passions and anxieties of our own time. Right now, we are enjoying a boomlet of interest in the long and tortuous history of that Greek-speaking, Orthodox Christian state that we call “Byzantine,” but that simply called itself “Roman.”

The sheer quantity of Byzantine history is a formidable barrier to the aspiring student, but language has been an even greater one. Byzantine scholars need a mastery of medieval Greek and Latin, along with a working knowledge of French, German and Russian. To impress one’s peers and access the more obscure sources, a smattering of Syriac, Armenian, Ottoman Turkish and Persian is desirable.

For the rest of us, it is fortunate that a generation of young Byzantine scholars are providing a steady stream of new English translations and interpretations of the sources, providing the context that non-specialists need to make sense of the material. Leonora Neville’s Heroes and Romans is a splendid example of how such analysis should be done.

Nikephoros Bryennios “the Younger” (1062–1137) lived during the long reigns of Alexios Komnenos (ruled 1081-1118) and his son, John II Komnenos (ruled 1118-1143). His grandfather, a famous military commander of the same name, led a rebellion, attempting to seize the throne of the inept Emperor Michael VII in 1077. Defeated in battle and captured, he was blinded, the usual punishment for rebels in that era. Blinding was considered more merciful than execution. The younger Nikephoros is known to history mainly because he married Alexios’s daughter, Anna Komnene, a gifted writer and historian who composed the Alexiad to commemorate her father’s career.

As a member of the military aristocracy, young Nikephoros enjoyed a successful career. Although his own pedigree gave him a credible claim to the imperial throne, he refused - much to his wife’s disappointment - to join a conspiracy to depose the emperor John when Alexios died in 1118. In retirement, he composed a book, Material for History, to memorialize the deeds of his grandfather and his associates during the terrible decade of 1070’s, when the empire was wracked by civil war and Turkish invasion.

Remarkably, the book survived in a single manuscript (now lost). There is still no complete English translation, but Prof. Neville provides a lucid account of the meaning and significance of this obscure text, with the Greek text quoted in extensive footnotes.

Twelfth century elite Byzantines considered themselves to be Romans. The Roman history they studied was learned from the Greek texts of Polybius, Plutarch, and Dio Cassius, since Latin was nearly a dead language in Constantinople.

For the ancients, the purpose of studying history was to become a better person by emulating the virtues of the Great, and avoiding the vices of the not-so-great. But in the world of 12th Century Constantinople, the stern Roman values of self-sacrificing heroism in direct face-to-face personal combat seemed out of place in a military-political environment that called for deception, “covert operations,” and conservation of scarce manpower. The relevant classic Greek culture hero was Odysseus, the trickster. Nikephoros, as a military aristocrat living in the court culture of a relatively peaceful reign, championed the old Roman virtues of directness and hand-to-hand frontal assault rather than the “Byzantine” values of trickery, maneuver and intrigue.

Heroes and Romans will be of interest mainly to specialists. Basic familiarity with Byzantine and Classical history is helpful for understanding the dazzling and insightful analyses that Prof. Neville offers. It is unfortunate that the high price of this slim volume will limit its potential audience mainly to those with access to a good research library.

Leonora Neville is Professor of Byzantine History at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She is also the author of Authority in Byzantine Provincial Society, 950-1100 (2004).


Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is a D.C. based defense analyst, who writes for several defense related journals and Defense Media Network, including, The Year in Special Operations . He is the co-designer, with John Gresham, of Supermarina 1 and Supermarina 2 , both from Clash of Arms. His previous reviews for StrategyPage include To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940 , The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire , and The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204 .

Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   

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